The 2010-2011 season had simply been moving along too well for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Through 33 games, the Orange and Black have established themselves as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, going 21-7-5 for an NHL best 47 points. Their goal differential of +32 is also the highest mark – by a long shot – of its kind in the league this season. Recently, they just completed a stretch against three teams that surely will challenge them for the Eastern Conference title this season, in the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Montreal Canadiens. In that three game stretch, the Flyers were 3-0-0, snapping the Penguins’ 12-game winning streak with a win this past Tuesday, and moving into sole possession of the top spot in the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference, and, as I said earlier, the National Hockey League.
However, the rigors of the 82 game NHL season have finally caught up with the soaring Flyers, who have been hit hard today by news that six-time All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger has a broken right foot that will require surgery. The Stanley Cup winning, Gold Medal winning, future Hall of Fame blue liner will be sidelined for the next four to six weeks. The injury apparently occurred during the Flyers’ Wednesday night victory over the Canadiens, when Pronger left the ice in the second period, and did not return for third period action. An MRI revealed the break, which was made public today, and Pronger, per Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren, was set to have surgery on the foot at 1:00 PM today.
So, to sum up what the situation is here: the Flyers, who are currently the best team record-wise in the National Hockey League, will be without their best defenseman in Pronger for conceivably the next month or more, in a stretch that will include that dreaded West-Coast swing, as well as five divisional games all against either the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils in the next six weeks. Also included in that stretch are games against the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. In total, the Flyers are slated to play 19 games in that six-week span that Pronger could likely miss in entirety.
Here’s how it breaks down:
- 12/18-12/25: New York Rangers, Florida Panthers
- 12/26-1/3: Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings
- 1/4-1/11: New Jersey Devils (x2), Buffalo Sabres
- 1/12-1/19: Boston Bruins, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals
- 1/20-1/27: Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens
- 1/28-2/3: Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators
Looking at this from a realistic perspective, it’s somewhat safe to assume, barring there are no setbacks, that Pronger will return to the Flyers’ line-up post-NHL All-Star Game, which is the weekend of January 28-30. So, the February 1 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning will more than likely be Pronger’s return. With that being said, that’s an enormous amount of time missed, and some crucial games that will be played in that time frame that Pronger won’t be apart of as well.
So, where to move from here? Well, as the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Sam Carchidi has already reported, the Flyers have established pairings for the time being that obviously are subject to change without the presence of Pronger on the back-end. According to Carchidi, the Flyers will keep Matt Carle as part of the top pairing with Andrej Meszaros taking Pronger’s spot. The second pairing will be Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, with Sean O’Donnell and Oskars Bartulis anchoring the third pairing.
If the name Bartulis doesn’t ring a bell, it should. The youngster was a regular on the Flyers’ blue-line during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, as he and Lukas Krajicek made up the Flyers’ third defensive pairing. However, citing a weakness in that pairing as a reason the Flyers lost in the Finals last season, Paul Holmgren went out this off-season and traded for Meszaros and signed O’Donnell, both of whom had been partners on the Flyers’ third defensive pairing until this injury. Now, Bartulis gets to hop back into the action, fresh off a prolonged stay in the press-box as the team’s seventh defenseman, and a regular healthy scratch. This season, Bartulis has played in three games, posting no points, but recording a plus-1 overall rating. His play has been praised in his brief stints in Orange and Black this season, as many have said it looks like the confidence that left him last season has regained shape this time around, and Bartulis has looked much steadier on the blue-line. He won’t be asked to score goals on the powerplay, let alone even appear on it. Instead, he’ll simply be looked at to maintain a steady defensive effort, and not make any mistakes in his own end. If he can successfully do that, there likely won’t be many cries for his head. At least not from me.
One thing that certainly needs to be taken into consideration when looking at this injury is while Pronger was the team’s leading point scorer amongst those that play defense on this club, he also was logging significantly less ice time than he was a year ago. This is due completely to the fact that two of the league’s top plus/minus guys that anchor the Flyers’ third defensive pairing in O’Donnell and Meszaros have given Peter Laviolette the ability to roll all three of his pairings out onto the ice as he pleases. With that being said, there’s no doubting that Pronger is the most important piece to the Flyers’ defensive puzzle, but he hasn’t needed to be as much of a horse as far as ice time is concerned, which bodes well for the Flyers’ prospects of at least finding a temporary solution while he misses time.
The scariest thing about the injury to Chris Pronger’s foot is this: even with the six defensemen the Flyers will trot out tomorrow afternoon against the New York Rangers, that unit will still be better than the regular six blueliners that more than half the teams in this league field on a given night. Coming into this season, the big talk about the Flyers was their tremendous depth on the blue-line. They acquired Matt Walker in the Simon Gagne deal, and along with Bartulis, and the talented Danny Syvret who is currently a member of the Adirondack Phantoms, the Orange and Black have more than enough depth on their back-end. Well, they did, until Pronger and Walker went down with long-term injuries, so now they are down to the minimum. But, hey, this is why you stockpile at a position as important as defense!
When talking about Chris Pronger, there are two glaring holes that his absence creates on this Flyers roster: first, the inability to have a big cannon at the point on the powerplay, and second, the lack of a presence in front against teams’ top lines to be able to clear the porch. While the Flyers’ powerplay struggles have been well-documented this season, Pronger is one of the reason why the unit has such heavy expectations. The 6’6” behemoth has a laser-beam slapper that he can let loose at any time from the point, making things extremely difficult on penalty killers when he has the puck on his stick with the man advantage. On the defensive end, it’s very rare that teams take liberties with going towards the Flyers’ goalmouth at their own discretion anymore. When Pronger came into the fold, all that changed as far as other teams’ attitudes in the Flyers’ defensive end. Those are two huge gaps that will need to be filled in Pronger’s absence.
So, who fills them? Well, on the powerplay, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, and Andrej Meszaros all have howitzers from the point, but I would go with either Timonen or Meszaros. Timonen has the hockey sense to know when it is a good time to make a move towards the net up the man, and Meszaros is a very offensively gifted defenseman who could potentially show his worth even more than he already has in Pronger’s absence. As far as clearing the porch in front of either Bobrovsky or Boucher, I like the ability in all the Flyers’ defensemen to take up that trait. I like to think that since Pronger joined the Flyers last season, his mentality and approach to the game has been copied by his fellow defensemen. I don’t think I’d find many people who disagree with me.
The bottom line here is this: Chris Pronger is not a guy a team can replace on the ice. He is a helluva defenseman, and an even better asset on both the bench and in the dressing room. His presence will definitely be missed by the Flyers for the duration of his injury. While it’s a tough situation, if any team in the league this year can handle it, it’s the Flyers. They have shown the depth on their team to be the main reason for their success, and it’s hard to believe they won’t find a way to remain at the top of the heap during one of their key leaders’ prolonged absences.
For more reading on the Pronger injury, click here: PRONGER TO HAVE SURGERY, OUT 4-6 WEEKS